If you want a cheap one-way ticket into global folk music, a path that continues a long way, you want the Alan Lomax Collection Sampler disc. For a few dollars you can buy the best of a national treasure. In the 1950s folklorist Alan Lomax began the systematic field recording of folk songs in the US, Europe and the West Indies. His microphone picked up sea chants, dance reels, peddler calls, hymns from the American Deep South, calypsos, Negro spirituals, and a dizzying variety of European folk styles (which are not at all what you’d expect–they sound oriental and medieval).
Lomax’s peerless enthnomusic archive was until recently difficult to access. Now Rounder Records has reissued his collection as a massive forty-CD series, The Alan Lomax Collection. The quantity and quality of this achievement is vast and world-class.
For most humans, the Sampler is a good start–an amazing, ear-tickling gathering of thirty-seven pieces of highly evolved, but sadly ephemeral, culture. Further wonderfulness can be found in the other forty discs dedicated to say, Prison Songs (two volumes), or the ballads of black cowboys known as Black Texicans, or the sacred harp music of white Baptist churches. Boredom will not be a problem; Epiphany will be likely.
A Romance singer in Asturias, the most mountainous province of Spain. Austurians sing the classical romances (ballads) of central Spain, retaining lyrics dating from the fifteenth century.
“Day after day I turned up ancient folk song genres totally unknown to my colleagues in Rome. By chance I happened to be the first person to record in the field over the whole Italian countryside, and I began to understand how the men of the Renaissance must have felt upon discovering the buried and hidden treasure of classical Greek and Roman antiquity. In a sense, I was a kind of musical Columbus in reverse. Nor had I arrived on the scene a moment too soon.” — Alan Lomax, from the inside booklet of “Folk Music and Song of Italy; A Sampler”